Total Work Newsletter #48: Psychotechnologies Of Self-transformation

Plus: Keys for the Prisoners


For Subscribers: Welcome on board new subscribers, James and Simon. The next chapter of The Total Work Manifesto is coming out in a couple of weeks. Chapter 2 is entitled “Seeking.”

Below: Please listen to the veeery beautiful, veeery sweet conversation I had with Jonny Miller fairly recently. Also interesting for those experimenters in life is my talk/essay, “Psychotechnologies of Self-transformation.” In the New Year, I’ll be starting a new experiment, and the essay just alluded to is a Trojan Horse of sorts. The talk is included, in part, at the end of this issue; or you can follow the link here.

A Summary of Total Work

A Russian man who’s concerned with business ethics and compliance recently asked me whether I could provide a brief summary of Total Work. He wanted to quote something in a professional paper. Here’s more or less what I sent him:

1. Total Work is the process, beginning at the end of the medieval period, by which human beings have been slowly transformed into Workers and nothing else as more and more aspects of human life have been transformed into work or into being work-like. Importantly, Total Work is not equivalent to overwork or underwork. Someone who works one hour a week could be a Total Worker whereas someone who happens to work 100 hours a week may not necessarily be a Total Worker. What must be underscored, then, is that Total Work insinuates itself in our lives through the myriad and often subtle ways in which it makes us into Doers, those who exercise our wills through the work we do on the world and on ourselves.

2. Total Work is conjoined with Humanism, the view according to which "Man is the measure of all things." Humanism is part and parcel with the death of God and the eclipsing of the closed, intelligible cosmos by the open, indifferent universe. 

3. The consequences of this process (that described in 1) are unnecessary human suffering, the waning of the contemplative life, and the rise of nihilism. So long as we focus solely on "flare-ups" such as burnout, just so long shall we miss that from which burnout arises. No panacea such as a four-day workweek or barring emails sent to employees on the weekends will go to the root of what ails us. Though they may be moves in the right direction, these are but half-measures that reject any serious philosophical and historical investigations without which Total Work shall morph and continue in new forms.

4. Neologisms such as "meaningful work," "socially impactful work," and "purpose-driven work" only serve to veil the nihilism that is actually at the heart of modern culture. The more "meaningful work" is spoken of, the more is it clear that meaning has gone missing in modern culture. (Just as the more "community" is spoken of, the surer it is that genuine communities hardly exist.) And meaning cannot be created; being a gift, it can only be disclosed.

5. What is needed instead is a new cosmotheandric vision, one in which anthropos, cosmos, and theos are harmoniously joined together. (I speak about point 5 in my IHMC talk, a link to which is provided below.)

Beyond Total Work And Almost Puking From The Classics

#1: POINTING TO KEYS TO THE LOCKS | Imagining Life Beyond Total Work With Andrew Taggart | 108 minutes | Curious Humans Podcast | Interview

Sum: “I'm speaking with Andrew J. Taggart, a practical philosopher, Zen Buddhist, and entrepreneur urging us to wake up to what we have so far taken for granted.

“In this conversation we discuss the thesis of his Total Work Manifesto and why we use our work and productivity to fuel our sense of self-worth and create meaning in our lives, as well as his compelling ideas for how we might break out of this Total Work prison that he calls Way of Loss and the Way of Wonderment.”

My Take: This was a very beautiful and touching conversation with Jonny Miller, a reader of this newsletter and a new friend. I’m glad that we found a way to discuss Total Work in connection with contemplation and spirituality since it’s the critique of the former that, I feel, makes possible an openness toward the latter.

#2: ALMOST PUKING OVER THE CLASSICS | Ted Turner’s Father’s Letter to Young Ted | 3 min. | Twitter | Letter HT Paul Millerd

#3: CULTURAL DECADENCE | Investigating the Green Meme at Kaospilot in Denmark | 1 hr. 9 min. | Soundcloud | Conversations

Sum: This is the most recent performance of “The Philosopher Is Not Present.” In this performance, we begin to look at some of the limits of the green meme. Some observations and remarks:

  1. Various concepts such as “privilege,” “hierarchy,” “inequality,” and “oppression” signal that one is in the green meme discourse. While after the 1960s, the New Left really did alert people to injustices in ways that were beneficial and while no reasonable person would deny the existence of injustices and inequalities today, it seems to me that we’ve now entered a period in which the green meme is, as Nietzsche would say, “decadent”: it has exhausted its vital energy and, in consequence, we’re in need of cultural evolution and of the evolution of consciousness. If your response to what I’ve just written is “Who are you, being a white, privileged, heterosexual male, to say all this?,” then my simple response is that you’re fully entrenched in what is now a green meme ideology.

  2. It becomes clear during the performance that Kaospilot students are variously committed to: pragmatism (if it’s not useful, then discard it), cultural relativism, subjectivism, empiricism, Romanticism (authenticity, potential, feeling, etc.), social justice, etc. This package is well-described in terms of the green meme.

  3. Also evident is the fact that the green meme won’t allow for there to be any consideration of unity-in-multiplicity ontonomy (…ontonomy.html), and convergence on universal truths–just to name a few. Yet these, and other terms and experiences, are precisely what is needed for the next step in the evolution of consciousness.

  4. For more on the limits to the green meme, see my IHMC talk included just below.

Psychotechnologies of Self-transformation


“Man is immersed in dreams… He lives in sleep… He is a machine.”

–G.I. Gurdjieff

I. Living in a Dream

Until the age of 29, I had been living in a dream. Indeed, I had been immersed in one. It told me: “You are here to think about humans in the objective world. You can do this through an institution called ‘a university.’ Go and devote yourself to this pursuit by finishing a Ph.D. and by getting an academic job.”

After all those years of living in this dream, I unexpectedly swerved. I finished a Ph.D. and knew something was wrong. 

In January 2009, I spent countless hours looking out of my kitchen window into the backyard. There, hanging from the eaves was a bird feeder. The bird feeder had–presumably by past tenants of this house–been attached to the eaves via a coat hanger that had been pulled apart and subsequently MacGyvered. 

It was a precarious affair. Since it was a very cold, snowy winter, the bird feeder had been wrapped in layer upon layer of ice. So freighted, it hung–let’s say, for dear life–dangling fatefully above the ground. 

I looked at it. I stared at it. I lost myself in the staring. Why did I do this?

Because, in hindsight, it could be said that it was what the poet T.S. Eliot once called an “objective correlative”: that is, an object that seems to correspond to one’s mental state. What I could not yet put into words—how distant I felt from everything, how quietly despairing and utterly lost I really was—was nonetheless represented in the bird feeder. It said, painfully: “Wake up, man. The dream is over. ”

II. Existential Opening

What I experienced then could be called an “existential opening.” By the latter, I mean whatever it is that breaks one open in such a way that the questioner is turned back on herself. That is, an existential opening is, well, what opens me to my existence. Rattled, shaken, partially awakened, I look at my face, my hands, the world, and wonder–maybe–whether it is all just a dream. All this, yes. But, even more, once I’m existentially opened, I bend each question I ask back on myself because, if only dimly or inchoately, I know that I am implicated in what it is I seek. In the beginning and in the end, the one I seek is myself. Henceforth, I cannot bracket myself from my investigations.

I learned this, also around January 2009, in no uncertain terms upon reading the beautiful and life-changing writings of the French philosopher Pierre Hadot. What Hadot showed me was that philosophy is, in essence, not a theoretical discourse but rather a series of exercises—those he called ascesis or “spiritual exercises”—whose point is to utterly transform the practitioner’s way of being. 

In Classical Greece and also in the Hellenistic period, philosophical schools arose, each of these (Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoical, etc.) being like an ashram or a Zen monastery and all of them being committed to more than mere intellectual pursuits in the art of living. The point of these schools, to put it all too quickly, is to be living wisdom. Here’s how Hadot describes spiritual exercises in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life:

Above all, the word “spiritual” reveals the true dimensions of these exercises. By means of them, the individual raises himself up to the life of the objective Spirit; that is to say, he re-places himself within the perspective of the Whole.

Here as elsewhere, Hadot describes in considerable detail exercises focused on the art of attention, those of a meditative nature, those on learning to dialogue (Socratic dialogue most especially), and, of course, those exercises in dying. For Cicero once observed of Socrates as he’s depicted in Plato’s dialogue the Phaedo: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”

I was hooked. I resolved to devote myself to certain of these spiritual exercises—most notably, to the art of dialogue—with the goal of becoming wise.


You can read the rest of the essay here.

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